margin-top: 28px; The Unlikely Times: 2009

Monday, March 9, 2009

Barbie turns 50

Here's something I never thought I'd write about - Barbie. But she fits right in here. What were the odds that a toy based on "a sexually-themed gag toy for men", based on "a cartoon character 'who was essentially a prostitute,'" would end up selling million of units to children around the world? While I have tried to stay away from silly human behavior on this blog, I'll use a bit of poetic license and say that Barbie is a phenomenon.

Anyway, Barbie turned 50 today. It's all over the news. But this raises some deep (I mean not-so-deep) questions ...

Do plastic people have birthdays? At what age will she start needing plastic surgery? Then again, she ages in "plastic years", and considering the rate at which plastic decays, 50 years is only about 20 minutes old!

My quotes came from this article from

Thanks for the tweet from EchelonPress to put these gags in my head. Now they're in your head. Enjoy.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Lightning loops

Living in southern California, I miss thunderstorms. We get maybe a few rumbles each year -- nothing like the storms we'd get when I was growing up back east. I've always been fascinated by lightning, and having watched many storms in the distance, I've seen odd things, like lightning that skims along the bottoms of clouds. And lightning that loops back into the clouds without hitting the ground. I've always wondered how rare these really are.

Looping lightning is not rare, but photos of it are. See this article for a nice example:

Source: USA Today "Looping lightning is rare, but not unknown" (31 Aug 01)

Lightning follows the path of least resistance (okay, impedence), and the air under a storm is naturally churned up. Still, it was a bit of a surprise to hear that cloud-to-cloud lightning happens "10 times as often as lightning that hits the ground."

Sometimes we tune out the common stuff. Most lightning stories we hear are of buildings and trees being struck and people killed. There's no human interest in stories about lightning that doesn't hit the ground. So, having never spoken much about it, it ends up seeming unlikely. seems like our perceptions of reality have looped without touching the ground.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Pop go the hay bales

Last month there were enormous wildfires in Australia, but as that continent bakes in the summer sun, there are other hazards. Like hay bales and entire sheds of hay exploding. Last year (2008) was "the worst season ever for spontaneous hayshed fires." [1]

It's not as sensational or mysterious as spontaneous human combustion, but it has the benefit of being verifiably real. The first article I found estimates some 400 cases of sudden hayshed fires in New South Wales alone, though it's not clear whether this is only for 2008 or for some longer period. [1] "One German study using data from an insurance company reported 304 haystack fires between 1970 and 1980, dropping to 118 between 1980 and 1990 due to the insurance company distributing 2500 hay thermometers to fire brigades since 1980." [3, quoting Wolk and Sarkar, 1993]

Oddly, it's not the driest bales that burst into flame, but ones with a moisture content around 20%. The moisture allows bacteria to thrive, and my initial impression is that the bacteria could be producing methane. However, the explosions are the result of bacteria raising the core temperature of the hay bale to 76 degrees C, and the ignition is just a reaction with oxygen. [1,2]

"The phenomena of exploding haystacks has been with mankind for as long as he has been making hay. Pliny, the Roman Philosopher wrote in 60BC, 'When the grass is cut it should be turned towards the sun and must never be stacked until it is quite dry. If this last precaution is not carefully taken a kind of vapour will be seen arising from the rick in the morning, and as soon as the sun is up it will ignite to a certainty, and so be consumed.'" [3]

It's odd that something which has been known and documented for over 2,000 years still sounds absurd and unlikely, but a lot of farming procedures and parameters are largely unknown to the general public.

1. Bizarre weather sends hay bales up in flames (, Jan 21 08)

2. Spontaneous Combustion of Hay (PDF) (Dep't of Primary Resources, South Australia - PIRSA)

3. The Case of the Exploding Haystacks: Spontaneous Combustion of Natural Products in New Zealand (Australian Biotechnology, March/April 1997)

Monday, February 16, 2009

Riding those coat tails

A few weeks ago we were watching "The Incredibles" again. One of the repeating gags in the movie is that long capes are an occupational hazard. Capes get caught in sinister machinery, leading to bad times for the superheroes wearing them.

Imagine my surprise when I found the following story in my family history research just a few nights later:

"Francis Marion Cook [...] was visiting Ann and Lincoln in Aurora, MO. He had married his daughter Melvina. Two months later he was walking down town. He was looking at a big engine. He was dressed in his preacher suit (He was a Baptist minister) with long coat tails. The tails got caught in the big flywheel. Messed him up so bad they could not ship him back, so he is buried there."

It's hard to write fiction without a grain of truth (however unlikely) creeping in.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Zombie power

I had some downtime around the holidays, but the Weird never takes a vacation.

Here's a story of mayhem on the highways. You know those elecronic billboards that are supposed to warn us of impending construction? Someone has been hacking them in Illinois and posting horror-show messages, including "ZOMBIES IN AREA! RUN!"

Just a quick note showing the perils of letting too many writers get frustrated ... while funny to some people, we really don't need MORE distractions on the road.

Source: Yahoo News